‘Let there be light…..’

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Experiences of a Work-based Research Placement in Bangalore, India: An MSc Dissertation Project on Solar Energy in Urban Slums

By Rebecca Forster
MSc Environment and Development

The large southern city of Bangalore has become a globally recognised symbol for Indian economic resurgence, and as the national centre for technological commerce it has been coined ‘the Silicon-Valley of India’. A sprawling metropolis of cosmopolitan districts, high-end shops standing back-to-back with plush restaurants and cool bars, it’s like no other place I’ve been in India. Yet the city is fraught with dichotomies. The reason I’m here lies at the antithesis of the luxurious hubbub I had the pleasure of exploring during my first week.

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Image credit: Rebecca Forster

In amongst the high-end development, lie over 450 urban slum communities. These consist of makeshift tented dwellings, made from bamboo frames and tarpaulin sheets. They serve as homes to thousands Bangalore residents, whose lives are currently situated on the margins of society. They have no access to basic infrastructure that is so commonly taken for granted in modern cities. Over 700,000 people in Bangalore live without access to electricity, instead depending on traditional kerosene lamps to provide the small amount of illumination by which to perform essential tasks after sunset. These lamps fill households with black smoke, produce carbon emissions, and are responsible for dangerous levels of indoor air pollution. This has become the second major cause of premature death among women and children.

Pollinate Energy is an Australian-owned social business that has established a series of micro-enterprises that work within the urban slum communities of Bangalore. These businesses provide photovoltaic solar powered lights to people living in energy poverty. I’m here to complete a six-week research placement with the Pollinate team, whilst simultaneously conducting dissertation research for my Masters degree.

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Image credit: Rebecca Forster

Pollinate’s work is truly inspiring and I have gained some really valuable experience during my time here. Working with the franchisees (the so-called ‘Pollinators’ who are dressed in not-so-subtle yellow t-shirts and regularly visit and sell to a group of communities in their local area), I have observed the successful business model that provides communities with affordable access to energy. Customers are generally able to make repayments on time, usually completing the installments in five weeks. Their household is then able to generate enough solar energy to do away with the traditional kerosene. A solar lamp allows families to make long-term financial savings and be productive in the evenings – whether increased time that children are able to spend on homework, women starting home-based tailoring businesses, or families simply being able to see one another across the previously dark tented household.

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Image credit: Rebecca Forster

On the whole, the communities have been heartwarmingly welcoming and accommodating, whilst helping with my interviews and questions regarding community needs. Even when communication has been limited to smiles alone, I have established friendly relationships in each of the places I’ve visited.

I am currently helping Pollinate launch a new product that they hope will better meet the needs of urban slum communities: a solar fan system. I eagerly anticipate the interesting experiences that I’m sure are still to come in the next few weeks and hope to make the most of being here before I return home (including sampling as much of the delicious Indian food as possible!).

www.pollinateenergy.org

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